Mom, Archivist, Devotee

For years now, I’ve been documenting Caroline’s life so she can read about her childhood when she gets older. It started with a baby book, which went up to age six. I was pretty faithful about filling in the many blanks, but somewhere in the house, there’s a plastic baggie full of baby teeth that still need to be taped inside. Baby teeth are the height of creepiness and sentimental value, am I right?  

When she entered school, I started storing her ephemera in file folder boxes – artwork, Christmas concert programs, report cards, photos. This year, however, was different. She finished sixth grade, partly remote, partly in person, fully indifferent, and all she got was this lousy t-shirt. But seriously, there were only two keepsake items: a dance recital program and a certificate marking her confirmation at church. Soon, I’ll drop her vaccination card in the folder and call it a year.

Not long ago, there were times when I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of “artwork” coming home from school and church. I tried not to feel guilty as I buried papers in the recycle bin, hoping their absence would go unremarked. But today, with zero artwork and not a poem about poop (or any other topic) in sight, I feel a bit let down.

I keep these records with an eye to the future, imagining looking through the file boxes together someday, laughing at the letters she wrote us begging for a cat, cooing at the sweet little handprint turkeys.

FYI, handprint art is a genre unto itself. Preschool teachers have handprint craft ideas up their sleeves for every occasion, Juneteenth and Tax Day included.

Alas, we are way beyond the era of handprint art, but grimy fingerprints on phone and iPad screens remain. While I’m trying to wean myself from writing too much about Caroline these days – she deserves the chance to tell her own stories – I will continue to document her days, as my mom documented mine.

A couple years ago, my parents cleaned out their attic and brought me a wicker trunk and large plastic tote filled with my life – yearbooks, artwork, beloved toys, and more. I don’t know what to do with it, but I see it as a symbol of Mom’s pride in me. It represents what she thought I’d want to remember – the poems I wrote, the pom-pons I shook, the proof that once upon a time I was a Sparta High School mathlete.

Because of this special kind of mother-love, I was struck by a passage in Michelle Zauner’s book Crying in H Mart when she comes across the ephemera of her childhood her mother had kept: “She was my champion, she was my archive. She had taken the utmost care to preserve the evidence of my existence and growth, capturing me in images, saving all my documents and possessions. She had all knowledge of my being memorized. The time I was born, my unborn cravings, the first book I read” (223).

The author’s mother had died, sadly, but this collection of childhood memorabilia would serve as a sort of identity guide in her adulthood: “Now it was up to me to make sense of myself, aided by the signs she left behind.”    

Here’s the zinger sentence: “She observed me with unparalleled interest, inexhaustible devotion” (223). Yes, I know something of that devotion, and I acknowledge how very blessed I am.

Next school year, I hope for band concerts and photos with full facial nudity (that is, no masks), but whatever the future brings, I’ll be standing by with my file boxes ready to archive her one wild and precious life.

-Em : )

Life, Immobilized

I have a guest blogger today! My sister Amanda was inspired to write about her experience of returning to the office after sixteen months away, and I wanted to share it with you. Enjoy!  

-Em : )

I drove to the office this week to have my laptop fixed, my first time back in over a year. I stood in the hallway where there was once hustle and bustle, and the only word that came to mind was “forlorn.”  As I walked down those abandoned halls, an eerie feeling overtook me.

I look at my reflection in the glass panels that once greeted those that entered and exited the rooms lining the hallway. There is no one on the other side of the glass. Disembodied voices of past occupants bounce off empty room walls. I glance in each room as I continue to my desk. Whiteboards display notes from meetings, details of work to finish — work long since completed from a home office.

I seemed to be in alternate world where time stopped.  I asked myself, maybe even mouthed the words, is this what Chernobyl looked like?  

Streets are empty, not a person to be found. A kettle sits on the stove. Bikes clutter the front lawn tipped over where they landed, at the ready for the next big adventure. Chalkboards display spelling words from the lesson of the day. Clothes hang on the line waiting for people to return from their daily errands and commitments. 

It may seem odd to connect such different events, the COVID 19 pandemic and the Chernobyl disaster. Both were devastating and unforeseen. Both have silent killers lurking, something we can’t smell, see, or taste. Both emptied schools and offices. 

The Chernobyl accident occurred at a nuclear power plant in the Ukraine in 1986.  The explosion in Pripryat resulted in radioactive fallout, laying a blanket of radioactive dust as the contamination plume spread across eastern Europe. Surprisingly, the death toll was relatively low in comparison to the magnitude of the accident, but post exposure-related illnesses are still being documented.    

The COVID 19 pandemic, on the other hand, has resulted in many deaths and continues to plague the world. Post COVID complications are already being documented. 

Both events have commonalities of science, time, and distance. 

The aftermath of Chernobyl is dictated by the very black and white laws of radiation physics, where the only solution is time and distance. The rule is the inverse square law: by doubling your distance from the source of radiation, you are quartering the dose received. With respect to time and radioisotopes, each has a characteristic rate at which it will decay, a half-life. This can range from fractions of a second to a shocking, almost unbelievable number of years. It is a waiting game.

COVID 19 was also dictated by science where the early solution was time and distance.  Allow scientists time to research and develop a vaccine and in the interim, maintain six feet of distance (and other precautionary directives that require human cooperation). As time passed, science has provided a detection method (where I think they swab your brain twice via not one but both nostrils), treatment and the dedicated clinicians that studied science and medicine to treat those suffering, and a vaccine.

In Pripryat, some of those that lived within the evacuated exclusion zone have moved back. Others have made a home elsewhere. Some of us who evacuated office life as we knew it to “shelter in place” are venturing out again. We are still navigating our way through the new normal.

I am linked to each of these events that uprooted and paused life; explicitly to one, implicitly to the other.  I lived through one and I can’t forget the consequences of the other.    

The study and use of radiation specifically in oncology is my life and livelihood.  

I am proud to be a part of a dedicated group of people who have chosen to focus their lives on radiation medicine.  We know all too well the devastation radiation can cause. These topics were part of our clinical education. These topics are part of our current safety discussions. Patient safety is always first and foremost on our minds.

These empty halls I walked, evacuated by a pandemic, these whiteboard discussions I heard when I closed my eyes, these vacant desks where papers lay all center on one topic, the development of software used every day in radiation oncology clinics across the globe. 

-Amanda Lambeth-Meyers

Free Fashion Advice

As I stood at the front door ready to take my daily walk, I thought of Coco Chanel’s famous advice: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I’ve acted on this bit of advice many times, since I love all the accessories.

But here’s the thing: I couldn’t take off anything for my walk because everything is necessary. Whereas I used to take long summer walks with nary a hat or sunscreen, I now wear a super-cautious wide-brim hat with a hole in back for my ponytail. Not only that, it has a chin strap to keep from blowing off my head with the slightest gust of wind. Wide brims love to catch air, you see.

I resisted the chin strap, due to an aversion to the elastic chin straps of my childhood Easter bonnets slicing across my throat. Those things were deadly serious about keeping the straw hat on your head until the final Amen. I now yield to the chin strap because I hate chasing this hat down the sidewalk.

Draped across my chin strap is another eyesore, the cord to my earbuds. When I bought a new cell phone, it turns out my old phone trade-in was only worth a cheap pair of earbuds, not the fancy wireless kind. These earbuds work just fine, though, as I rock out to National Public Radio whilst on my daily rounds.

The only downside is they won’t stay in my ears, so I clipped the cord together—right in front of my chin strap—with a metal binder clip. I’m pretty sure this is the kind of thing Coco had in mind when she advised taking one thing off. But I need my earbuds to stay in my ears, so the binder clip is here to stay. Office supplies are so versatile.

This all sounds tragic (is probably what you’re thinking), but maybe I could compensate with some cool shoes. Well, that’s not gonna happen. After years of wearing poorly fitting shoes and toe-pinching heels, my feet desperately need a comfy pair, and the brand that best fits the ol’ water skis is a venerable sneaker beloved by boomer dads. I buy the cheapest ones in my size, which means I rarely have cool colors on my feet.

Lastly, there’s the accessory that brought Coco Chanel’s advice to mind: my elbow brace. The doctor says my chronic pain is tennis elbow, although I’ve never played tennis in my life. Still, the pain is real, so I wear a fancy black Velcro band around my left arm. Standing at the front door, I seriously considered taking this off because I’m just vain enough to fear it’ll give me some deeply weird tan lines. However, elbow pain edged out vanity, so I kept it on.

Donning my prescription sunglasses, I turned to Phil and said, “I feel like my walking outfit just gets weirder and weirder.”

“It’s not just a feeling,” he said, without looking up from the computer. “Tomorrow, you’ll put on a tutu.”          

Little does he know, I have no reason to add a tutu to my ensemble. Knee socks and ankle weights, maybe. We’ll see. Getting older is truly liberating.

Strutting out into the glorious sunshine, I tighten my chin strap, adjust my binder clip, and crank NPR like a real, live twenty-first century Coco Chanel.

Creatures and Other Comforts

This past year has shown me that I need creatures. While Charlie Parker, feline, doesn’t require as much attention as our dog did, he requires a lot of presence (and belly rubs). Wherever we gather, he is in the midst. When Phil and I are in the living room and Caroline is in her bedroom, he sits equidistant from us. Maybe it’s a magnetic force. Maybe it’s love.

Creatures, wild and tame, have meant a lot to me during the pandemic. Last fall, after a long stretch of staying close to home, we ventured to Arizona. The desert landscape was magical, and even the freezing hotel pool was a high point. However, the most amazing part of that weekend for me was meeting a hawk.

The hawk’s job was to deter pesky birds from bothering people who were dining on the patio. I was in awe of this majestic bird, so after we ate, I went over to talk to his handler. The bird towered over me with piercing yellow-green eyes and a beak that could take my finger off. The curved talons gripping his handler’s glove unnerved me. Then the handler asked, “Would you like to pet him?” Honestly, the thought of petting an apex predator hadn’t crossed my mind.

But okay.

I reached out slowly and smoothed his chest feathers with the back of my hand thinking only please don’t hurt me. I was awed and relieved that he ignored me.

Throughout the winter, we took note of the creatures outside. Birds and squirrels, rabbits and stray cats, all made their way through our yard in the course of their quest for survival. Early in the year, I started leaving birdseed for the squirrels and cardinals right outside the window, prime space for wildlife viewing. Charlie da Cat and I loved watching the squirrels grow fatter day after day. On the bitterest days of February, we watched a rabbit crouch under our deck, the wind shivering its fur.

When it gradually warmed into spring, I let the birdseed bowl run dry. The squirrels found other ways to survive, and the shivering rabbit gave birth to a brood that quickly learned to mooch from Phil’s garden full of Chinese cabbage and radishes.

Finally, this spring we headed to Florida for a couple days of warm sunshine. On our last morning at the beach, we came upon the most alluring creature. A glassy blue blob shaped sort of like a Chinese dumpling. Phil saw it first as it hung out on the wet sand, just out of the tides’ reach. “Should we help it back into the water?” he said. As the creature’s pointy end seemed to probe blindly at the sand, I nudged it with the toe of my sandal into the next wave.  

Later I learned that my right foot had been thisclose to a world of hurt. A quick internet search revealed the blue blob was likely a Portuguese Man o’ War, an animal with a painfully venomous sting.

This creature, I see now, signifies the polar opposite of comforting. Still, I’ve studied its picture on my phone many times since returning from Florida, awed by its pearly-blue surface and mysterious blue blobs lurking underneath.

In times like these, perhaps amazement passes for comfort — the comfort of knowing there’s still a big world out there and we’ll get back to exploring it soon. As I hang a hummingbird feeder outside the window, I give thanks for the comfort of creatures.  

-Em : )

Strangers and Other Creatures

Right after the mask restrictions were eased recently, I noticed something strange. A woman seemed to be following me at Schnucks. At first, I assumed she happened to be shopping for the same things in the same order: celery, snow peas, avocados. But when she spoke, it broke my vegetable reverie.

Stranger danger. Maybe she was stalking me.

“I am just striking out today,” she hollered through her mask.

“Oh?” I said, wary of appearing too interested in case she wanted to sell me on a healthy new lifestyle or the divine lordship of Krishna.

“I can’t find fresh ginger anywhere! Already been to Walmart and Dierbergs and now here!” Still wary, I felt obligated to help her find it, since she’d hollered at me and all. I had to pick up Caroline from dance class, but this cry for help would not let me off the hook.

The ginger root was piled next to the avocados I’d just been picking through, so I said, “Oh, here’s some ginger – looks like you hit the jackpot!”

She thanked me a bit too much — she’d have found it herself in two seconds — and I headed on to other things on my list.

But she wasn’t done with me. It was her husband’s birthday, she said, and she wanted to make his favorite dish, which is Korean but not too spicy, and you definitely need fresh ginger, not this powdered stuff that some people think is ginger. Right, ha ha ha?

“Ha ha, right!” I laughed along. Cooking with ginger is a joyous occasion indeed.

Now, I’ve been grocery shopping in the off hours the entire pandemic and haven’t made small talk with a single person. This stranger, determined to include me in her ginger mission, gave me pause.

Then, the same thing happened the next day as I shopped for laundry detergent! A stranger asked what detergent I like, and I told her all about the pods that smell amazing.

The next day, it happened again. Browsing in Marshalls, I was stopped by a woman trying on shoes. “Aren’t these the cutest?” she asked. I looked around, unsure if she was talking to me. Emboldened by the ginger and detergent convos, I told her they were the cutest, and she should buy both colors.

So, three days, three chats with strangers. Is it just me, or have we turned a corner? We are so tired of bad news, so eager to feel normal, and so lonely for the oddest things, like small talk in the store.

When the pandemic first started, I’d hold my breath when I passed a stranger. I also avoided eye contact just in case droplets could be transmitted by gaze. (Can’t be too safe nowadays.) Shockingly, this wasn’t conducive to friendly interaction. But now that maybe, just maybe, we are on the other side, it feels okay to engage with others again.

A couple months earlier, my family had ventured out among strangers in Florida. After spending the past year only with people in our circle of work and family, the spring break beach experience was weird and overstimulating.

One morning at breakfast, we were seated six feet from a table of people for whom nothing was right. One complained that her coffee was too hot. Another felt slighted for having to sit in a patio chair while all the other chairs at the table were indoor chairs. Yet another complained that her egg whites were “too wobbly” and inedible. My blood began to boil hotter than the offending coffee. I hadn’t been around strangers for so long that I could not abide their grievances. I left our nice breakfast shaky with caffeinated rage.

I think the problem is I had turned inward — even more than before the pandemic — and had come to see strangers as threatening at worst and irrelevant at best. I was a grouchy hermit crab.

Yet the interactions in the grocery store and shoe department were oddly delightful. They stayed with me for days after.

I mean, the word isn’t wrong: strangers can be strange. But I’ve enjoyed peeking out of my shell. Who knows? Maybe the next time I’m shopping in the frozen section, I’ll spark a conversation about imitation crab.

-Em : )

Hope Springs Eternal (in the Library)

It’s been quite a year in the library – a very quiet year, since students haven’t been able to visit. Because of COVID, I deliver books to the students’ classrooms. Some days, they greet me like I’m the ice cream man. “Hey, it’s Mrs. Chemical with library books!” No doubt, from time to time my visit has helped to break up the monotony of sitting masked and staring at screens. And whether they get my name right or not, I truly appreciate the appreciation.

I spend about ten minutes on each visit, unloading my cart of books like an itinerant peddler and letting each student have a look-see at my wares. Most of the time, they decide quickly, especially if I’m well stocked with Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries, perennial favorites of many third, fourth, and fifth graders. For first graders, I bring at least two copies each of Berenstain Bears, Arthur and Friends, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Fly Guy. I give the people what they want.     

Some students are terribly indecisive. They look and look, but nothing strikes their fancy. I get it – I’ve been known to browse a bookshelf myself – but COVID times call for quick decisions and a whole lot of hand sanitizer.

I try to hurry things along, based on what other kids their age like. For third grade boys, my first hurry-up question is, “Do you like dinosaurs?” Nine times out of ten, I sell them on a solid prehistoric nonfiction read. Say they don’t like dinosaurs? I try outer space. Astronauts and dinosaurs are a surprisingly easy sale for such boys.

However, one little boy proved to be a tough customer. Doesn’t give a flip about dinosaurs, and outer space is beyond meh. I eyed the clock and offered a few more suggestions. Magic Tree House? Nope. Bad Guys? Not really. A really nice selection on caring for Siamese cats? Nah.

At that moment he stared past me, a faraway look in his eye as he asked, “Do you have any books about . . .” Here he paused for what felt like eternity as I searched his little masked face for some hint. “About . . .” he repeated, “about concrete?” I blinked. Never in a million years could I have predicted that.

The crazy part is, I did have a book about concrete. Well, it was about cement mixer trucks, but it was just about perfect for him.

Although I couldn’t sell my little friend on a Siamese cat book, books about animals are immensely popular with the K-5 set. When a student chooses a book about chinchillas, chances are very good they want me to know that their cousin has a chinchilla, and it’s soooooo cute, and they love reading about furry animals, but they hate snakes and love snacks. I love these conversations.

Many kids who have pets at home like to read about those animals. If they don’t tell me when checking out an animal book, I always ask, “Do you have any pets?” Some do, some don’t. I just feel that it’s important to show interest in their interests. One thing is consistent with all young readers who don’t have pets. They all tell me, “No, but I’m going to get a puppy real soon.”

I say, “Wow, that’ll be so exciting to have a puppy!” Maybe they’re right; maybe half the families in our district are in the process of getting a puppy. I think it’s more likely a statement of hope. Saying it makes it a little bit more true.

So I’ll go ahead and say this: we’re getting back to normal, daily life really soon! Probably by autumn.

There. Maybe I’m right.

I know I’m right about one thing: hope springs eternal, especially in the library.  

-Em : )